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The Musical Magic of Shin Lim

Shin Lim’s “America’s Got Talent” Journey: A Musical Analysis

By Paulo Camacho

It all went down just a few weeks ago — the “America’s Got Talent” Season 13 champion came down to two acts — the high-flying acrobatic group Zucaroh, and unbelievable sleight-of-hand magician Shin Lim. After an excruciating 23 seconds, host Tyra Banks finally announced the winner:

We covered the 27-year-old former concert pianist here, just as he was gaining nationwide notoriety. Now the winner of one million dollars (USD), and the recipient of a headline show in Las Vegas, Lim has the opportunity to cement his name as one of the best magicians in recent memory.

But make no mistake — the Vancouver native’s journey from “Sleight-of-hand artist” to AGT Champion was just a much a musical one, as anything else. Throughout the competition, he stayed true to his style of playing card wizardry — one that relied on the character of the music he used in his acts, to add to his already-amazing illusions — and audiences were very receptive.

His perfect melding of music and magic was on full display with every performance on America’s Got Talent. To wit:


Audition: M83 — Un Noveau Soleil

One of the most important things to understand about Shin Lim, and how he harnesses music to accentuate his act, is his knowledge of the phenomenon known as Frisson. Derived from the french word meaning “thrill”, “goosebumps” or “shiver”, “Frisson” is basically a brief moment of emotional excitement. In music, it is a common occurrence that often grounds the listener, emotionally.

In the above audition act (as with many of his subsequent acts), he highlights each major illusion with a Frisson beat, laying bare the viewer’s feelings of amazement, to an often-powerful effect. Keep in mind, throughout the act, he performs a total of 16 unique illusions, and with more than half of them, there is an unmistakable accent (usually a bass beat) to accompany it. Not only is it an audible cue for each trick, it accentuates the act, itself, with a dramatic flourish.

The track, itself — translated from French as “A New Sun” (or “A New Dawn”) — lives up to its name. The dramatic feel of the track, building up to its hopeful conclusion, is a near-flawless audible representation of a sunrise’s ethereal beauty. Additionally, its symbolism to Shin Lim is not lost. After all, he has admitted that, other than his audition and finals performance, the acts he performed throughout AGT were all routines he had mastered over the years as a sleight-of-hand artist. In contrast, this was a brand-new act — one not even his contemporaries or fans have seen from him in his years as a card magician. Considering the track’s aura of “a new dawn,” it’s fitting that Shin Lim would be performing a new set of illusions, to introduce himself to a national audience.


Judges Cuts: M83 — Oblivion

Once again, this is a great example of Shin Lim using his music of choice to accentuate the illusions, themselves, while enhancing the viewing experience. While he has used different music to this act before (see his encore performance on Penn and Teller’s “Fool Us”), this is the music he has traditionally used in his live shows in Europe.

And this is fitting music to use for this particular act: French band M83’s self-proclaimed “soaring ballad,” featuring Norwegian Art Pop singer Susanne Sundfør, was used for the Tom Cruise Sci-Fi film of the same name. The music was meant to mirror the film’s setting — in the clouds above a post-apocalyptic vision of Earth. However, its dream-like sound (meant as symbolism for the importance of dreams to the film’s protagonist) is employed within Shin’s act to mirror the wonder of his illusions.

The act, in this case, plays out in two “acts” — the first, in which he makes the Kings and Queens appear, and subsequently “transports” the aces from the table to under Olivia Munn’s hand; and the second, with the music building to its crescendo, where he vanishes the sets of Kings and Queens. The judge’s reactions highlight this classic marriage of music and magic, enhancing the wonder and amazement to an unprecedented level.


Quarterfinals: M83 — Starwaves / M83 — Outro

If you can sense a pattern in the music Shin Lim is using for his performances on America’s Got Talent, you’re not the only one. After all, M83 has featured in all of his AGT performances thus far, and there’s good reason for it — their ambient, dream-pop genre music fits well with the kind of vibe Shin Lim wants to project with his magic. He has said in the past that the reason he rarely talks or banters in his acts is because he wants to highlight the illusions, themselves — and using the right kind of music is a great tactic in doing so.

In what many may consider as Shin Lim’s most “muted,” understated performance of the competition, the music aids in that perception. While that lingering feeling of wonderment is established in the use of “Starwaves,” it stays at that level when the act transitions to “Outro” — with no real “jump-out-of-your-seat” illusions to speak of. While still an impressive performance overall (and a solid use of music in the act), there was probably a reason judge Simon Cowell wanted Shin Lim to “move away from the cards” and give “more of a performance” as a result: it didn’t feature the 2015 FISM winner’s full potential.


Semifinals: Zack Hemsey — Mind Heist: Evolution / Hans Zimmer — Time

In the competition’s penultimate performance, Shin Lim took out the big guns — and had the perfect accompanying music to go with it. In a routine he has perfected over the years, and is well-known by fellow magicians and fans alike as his famed “Dream Act,” his successive sequence of mind-blowing card illusions could only be set to the kind of music that was originally meant to blow people’s minds. Therefore, what better music to use than that from Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending 2010 film, “Inception”?

Both pieces that Shin Lim used for his Dream Act were done to perfection. The mysterious, ethereal feel to Zack Dempsey’s “Mind Heist: Evolution” — heard in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the performance — does a lot to set the tone for the act. The piece really hits home when it reaches its crescendo, and Heidi Klum’s card appears from the smoke coming out of Shin Lim’s mouth. It is something a mainstream audience has not seen before, and the awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping illusion is enhanced by that final flourish to Dempsey’s piece.

The same effect comes into play around the 4:40 mark, when Tyra Banks’ card appears from the magician’s mouth, then, in what was likely his best illusion of the act, he magically switches Banks’ and Klum’s cards instantaneously — further emphasized by a majestic flourish in the music. He ends the act by disappearing the entire deck by crushing it into the table, to a final, sudden stop to the music. It creates an abrupt, unbelievable finale to the routine that leaves the crowd stunned.


Finals: Vitaliy Zavadskyy — Music Inspired by “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” / Hans Zimmer — Planet Earth II Suite

In an original act he would later admit that he only came up with mere weeks before he was to perform it live, Shin Lim pulled out all the stops to win the coveted $1 million prize. And, considering the pieces he had used in his previous performances, he wasn’t about to go away from the thematic structure of his performance music.

The music wouldn’t technically kick in as a true element to the act until around the 2:00 mark, when he turns all four of the 9’s in his hand into the 9 of hearts. The dramatic effect at this point was key to making the rest of the act effective, as each illusion would build on top of its predecessor. At the 2:26 mark, the act, along with the piece, marches on — both literally and figuratively, with a processional theme that builds to a conclusion as he completes a sequence that produces dozens of incarnations of the same card.

The sheer wonder of Hans Zimmer’s “Planet Earth II Suite” is a fitting piece to feature Shin Lim’s signature illusion of the act — morphing a 6 of hearts into a 9 of hearts before the audience’s very eyes. The string melodies that build behind the illusion create a perfect effect of mystery and wonderment. The orchestral melody builds once again as the final illusion is revealed — a floating menagerie of playing cards that spell out the number ‘9’ and a heart, to represent the card Tyra randomly selected at the beginning of the act.

The splendor of the act’s final melody puts Shin Lim’s card magic to full display — an element to his talent that wasn’t fully realized until that moment. It was a moment that Shin Lim would remember for years to come — as it was the moment he won America’s Got Talent.

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